One of the recurring themes in Mani Rathnam’s movies is that of an individual or a family caught in a social maelstrom. Kannathil Muthamittal is one such, depicting a little girl’s search for her biological mother in civil war-ravaged Sri Lanka. For the most part, the movie is, I think, pitch perfect. It overdoes it right at the very end, and it’s kind of a glaring flaw, but I’m inclined to forgive that – to paraphrase what Einstein once said t Wheeler, he has earned the right to be wrong occasionally.
Three scenes stand out in my opinion. The first is well-known and quite often mentioned by reviewers. The second is not often mentioned, I think. And the third is the big payoff.
1. There’s a scene where a village is being evacuated before the Sri Lankan air force bombs the place. An amazing song – Vidai Kodu Engal Naade – plays in the background. (Amazing how A. R. Rehman picks an unconventional but absolutely perfect voice to render some of his songs – this one is by M. S. Viswanathan, and simply blows me away every time I hear it.) The standout moment involves the old temple priest in the village who refuses to leave the place he has lived in all his life. You see him standing there, defiantly ringing the temple bell as the bombs explode all around him. Poetic.
2. Right at the end, the girl Amudha finally gets her wish – she meets her biological mother Shyama. And she asks her, “Why did you leave me? Why did you never come to see me?”
Shyama had gone back to Sri Lanka soon after giving birth to her in Rameswaram over ten years ago, and joined the ranks of the LTTE. Her husband is dead, she has probably seen many of her comrades, friends and family members die during these years, and has trained herself to concentrate single-mindedly on her chosen purpose. This unexpected meeting with her child, and that question, leaves her sandbagged.
She pauses for a moment, and simply says “Tarunam appadi.” (Loosely translated, “The circumstances were such.”) It is a testament to Nandita Das’ acting, and to Mani Rathnam’s skill, that those two words are all we need.
3. This one involves Simran. For years, her function in the movies was to look pretty, and she did that admirably. The sole blip on the radar was Vaali, and I felt even that performance was overrated. When I watched Kannathil Muthamittal for the first time, I noticed the performances of Keerthana, who plays Amudha, and Nandita Das, who has about 10 minutes of screen time and uses it exceptionally well.
The second time around, I concentrated on Simran. Hers is an interesting role: she plays Indira, Amudha’s adoptive mother who, along with her husband, searches for her daughter’s biological parent. She never really verbalizes it, but there’s a feeling of insecurity that comes with that search. It comes out in little ways, like when she has little fights with her daughter. And watch how she winces almost imperceptibly every time her daughter mentions that they’re in Sri Lanka to look for her “real mother”. (That’s why I’ve been using the word “biological” ad nauseam, by the way.)
Right at the end of the movie, when Shyama is walking away after the big meeting, Amudha turns and gives Indira a big kiss on the cheek. To the girl, it’s probably just a way od saying thank you, for helping her find her mother. But to Indira, it means so much more, and you see her face light up.
When I watched the movie for the first time, this moment didn’t do anything for me. But on the second viewing, I was concentrating on Indira, and Simran did such a great job of conveying the character’s inner turmoil while staying mostly in the background, that the last kiss totally made my day.
I realized then that the movie was not about the girl, or about her search, or about the Sri Lankan conflict. All that is just the backdrop for Indira’s story. And the title of the movie (translated to “she kissed me on the cheek”) wasn’t trivial – Mani was trying to tell you what he was trying to do, and what to look for.